Melvyn's newsletter - Custer's Last Stand - 19/05/2011

Episode image for Custer's Last Stand


I met the great-granddaughter of Chief Sitting Bull in a bar in Chicago. It was the quietest place in the hotel that mid-afternoon. I wanted to interview her about the Sioux language which was one of the disappearing languages - I was making a programme at the time. It is beautiful to listen to. It is mild-toned, a sweet song, like a small, slow-motion waterfall. Impossible to describe and impossible not to mourn. She herself had about her a veil of sadness, which seemed to me to conceal the desperation evident in the two adult sons she had brought with her, who talked to me later about their complete lack of a future. As Kathleen Burk said after the programme, the intention after Custer's Last Stand was quite clear. To go for the Indians because they were Indians, just, she said, as people went for the Jews because they were Jews. They broke the culture, they took the kids away to school, they gave them hunger and what we have are a few casinos and vanishing languages. Languages which the early British settlers on the east coast, or some of them, had also remarked on, for its melody, its fluidity and its charm.

Why is it that in about 1876 the vast indigenous Indian population was about to be sunk almost without trace and without future, while at the same time the vast imported Afro-American population was on the first magnificent and historically unique step of throwing off slavery and moving towards equality? I suggested that one key reason might be that, whereas attempts to introduce the Indians to the King James Bible had been few and largely a failure, the Afro-Americans had taken to it and founded their language, their religion, their culture and their liberation politics on it.

Then out into a wonderful sunny day in London. Off for a haircut and, straggly bits slashed, on the way to St James's Park through Burlington Arcade. Japanese photographers were taking pictures of a shoeshine boy glossing the brogues of a man in a pinstripe suit. They were also taking pictures of the security guard in the arcade, who wears a top hat ornamented in gold braid. A perfect picture to send back home of 21st century Britain. Into St James's Park, with the rows of green and white deckchairs lined up, waiting for customers. Few were occupied at this early stage. I've never felt at home in a deckchair. Then down to nod to the ducks and - all of a sudden - the great sound. The massed bands were practising in Horse Guards Parade for, I presume, Trooping the Colour.

Crowds - largely from overseas, as far as I could make out - lined up eagerly behind the iron fencing to watch surely the greatest free show in town that morning. Hundreds of young men in scarlet tunics and black trousers and tall beaver hats marching firstly the slow march, with the big drums of the band beating out like tom-toms, and then breaking into a quick march, arms swinging (not always in perfect unison, but after all, this is a rehearsal), while single horses led and the band played on.

I don't know why I find this so moving. It might be because young men like these have, for centuries, gone into battles on behalf of this country and accepted that this marching and drilling and ordering is part of helping to 'turn them into soldiers'. It's partly the almost visceral ancestral sense of a pageant being made out of the horror of war. And there's no doubt that for most of us watching, there's something incongruously but indubitably cheerful about it.

On then, as Big Ben tolled eleven, to the House of Lords where I was met by my good friend Bernard (Lord) Donoughue, who had suggested the idea of Custer's Last Stand in the first place. And so to the phone for this. And then off to South Wales on this tour of the country for Reel History. Only seven more programmes to go in the next ten days!

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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